It's been twenty years since the end of the Oilers' dynastic period, and most Oiler fans still count a member of that dynasty as their favorite player, myself included. But there exists an entire generation of Oiler fans that never saw the boys on the bus together, and if they did, they can't remember details about one of the best teams ever assembled. That's why the authors here have decided to list each of our favorite Oilers since the team last won the Stanley Cup. This isn't about the best Oiler, or the most-loved Oiler; our series is about our personal favorites and we hope it strikes a chord with our readers.
It was easy for Scott, as he jumped on Ryan Smyth right away. I didn't take the same path, probably because Dustin Penner is so new to the organization and there are many indelible memories etched into my mind from a time when I was younger and more easily influenced. Penner was up against some strong competition in my mind, and the other three finalists were:
Mike Grier because everything about his game mirrored the Edmonton Oilers' game for five years. He was only 6'1", but he was 225 pounds of board-rattling thunder. He forechecked like a much smaller, shiftier man until impact, and was a force in both zones. Every other year it seemed that he was good for twenty goals, and his play on defense and the penalty kill meant more than the goals. When his body failed him, he was like an action hero in the movies, popping his separated shoulders back in to catch the next shift. I don't believe that there is an Oiler from any era, from any team that more deeply embodied his team and the franchise than Mike Grier during the years of the little team that could.
Ales Hemsky for being one of the best talents in the league, hidden away in the Tar Sands of Alberta, forced to ply his trade for a largely unappreciative fanbase. Craig MacTavish raised Hemsky right and since completing his formal education, he's been an outscorer and a phenomenal power play talent. If there's one thing I'm almost certain of, it's that Ales Hemsky will have a ridiculous season (measured per sixty) on the power play should he, Penner, Foster, Whitney and Hall all stay healthy. Oh, Hemsky also single-handedly forced Steve Yzerman to retire (watch carefully for 19 in white) in what remains one of the most giggle-inducing moves I've seen in my lifetime.
And finally, the runner up as my favorite Oiler since the dynasty days - Radek Dvorak, for scoring what I believe to be the most exciting goal since the the fifth and final Stanley Cup. In my personal Oilers' Mount Puckmore, Dvo is there, peeking out from Teddy Roosevelt's spot, just back from the spotlight, but on the mountain nonetheless. I defended this when I wrote the article about the goal, and I've defended the pick to the authors here and elsewhere, but that goal, as I said in the article, was the high point of an era in which the Dallas Stars beat the Oilers' heads in regularly. Dvorak's dagger just felt so good and remains one of my favorite goals in Edmonton history.
But in the end, it was Dustin Penner that came out on top for me, and after the jump I'll explain my selection.
Dustin Penner came to the organization in one of the most controversial moves in one of the most controversial times in Edmonton history. In terms of personnel moves, I'd argue that selling off Ryan Smyth because of a $100,000 yearly difference at the negotiating table and using an enormous package of draft picks and money to lure Penner to the Oilers is second only to the Wayne Gretzky trade in fan outrage in Oilers' history. At the time I didn't think the move was a good one, but I understood why management decided to go for it. Smyth was just shipped out the door for a '78 Buick and not much else, and Kevin Lowe needed to replace him with something legitimate. Penner was his second choice after Buffalo matched his offer sheet for Thomas Vanek. I even thought Penner had a chance of outplaying the contract number towards the end of the deal if things broke right, but as a GM of a floundering team, that's a difficult bet to make and a difficult bet to sell to the fans.
Almost immediately, Penner became the whipping boy for all walks of hockey fans in Edmonton. Though Penner is an enormous man, his game is not one of bone-crunching hits, and Edmonton fans were livid that he wasn't hitting on a consistent basis. Couple that with the fact that Penner can move extremely well without appearing to give much effort and he was immediately labeled as "lazy", "fat", "slow", and a plethora of other unfriendly labels. He was taking criticism for the perceived deficiencies in his game, but more than that, he was taking the brunt of the fans' venom meant for Kevin Lowe and the management team.
In spite of all of the grief he took, Penner remained effective in every facet of the game. During his first season in Edmonton I started to take notice and began defending him all over the 'sphere. But it was the knowledge of his effectiveness and the constant defenses I was putting up for him that made me appreciate his game. The more I defended him, the more I appreciated him, and he eventually became one of my favorites. Regular readers already know about my quasi-obsession with Penner's microstats so I'm not going to go into that now. I will say, however, that Penner proving me right by having the boxcars catch up to the microstats last season was a good feeling, and one that allowed me to smile a smug smile each time he scored or made some fantastic play. It was like following an unknown band for a couple of years and watching them hit it big.
It's the non-statistical side, the intangible side of Penner, that's fun to talk about. Penner is adept at controlling the play in the offensive zone, ragging the puck around behind the net, muscling it to the goal line on the far boards and storming off of the boards to the circle with the fury of an angry bull but with the demeanor of a Shaolin Monk. He's got wonderfully soft hands and is an amazing passer in the offensive zone. Check the highlights from the comeback win over the Blue Jackets last season for evidence.
The little men of the world always look like they're putting out maximum effort (Tie Domi looked like he was passing a kidney stone in full stride), while men like Dustin Penner (with long strides that often look plodding) are easy targets based on visual evidence.
And it's true. But Penner never lacked for catching up to the play or staying ahead of the play. The long, loping stride might not look exciting, but it's efficient and it covers ground in a hurry. Like in the breakaway goal below:
The defender in pursuit is, one of the fastest defensemen in the game today. Penner pulls away from him with ease and pots the goal. But even on the breakaway, with an especially speedy defenseman in pursuit, Penner doesn't seem to be putting a huge amount of effort into the play. Looks can obviously be deceiving.
Because Penner is not an obviously physical player, Edmonton fans labeled him as "soft". But in the lost season of 2008-2009 it was Dustin Penner jumping to Ladislav Smid's aid and one-punching Landon Wilson. It was Dustin Penner who stood up for Ales Hemsky after Hemsky took a late hit from Garnet Exelby. Even though Penner was defending his teammates and ably so, somehow it was this hit on Robyn Regehr that signaled "a new Penner" to the media and fanbase.
Penner was a scapegoat for a coach, a franchise, an Oilogosphere, and a city, yet he handled himself with as much grace as could be expected. He never went on a tirade in the media, though the media went on tirades about him. He stayed quiet and kept playing his game. He came back this year with "a new diet" and "renewed vigor". And he always kept his sense of humor - and Penner has a fantastic sense of humor.
I have no idea what "the room" thinks of Dustin Penner, but from the outside, Penner has all of the makings of a stalwart for this franchise and a player capable of carrying a line of lesser lights. He came to town in a terrible situation, replacing "Captain Canada", and took heat from all sides because of that. But you know what? In the end, Penner has replaced the face of the franchise, even if the ornery fanbase won't admit it.